A few years ago I read in the Associated Press about a Catholic church in Nice, France which also happened to have ultra-nationalist leanings. One of the ways that they expressed this was by only serving food out of their soup kitchen that contained pork. The media immediately portrayed this as racism of the most heinous kind, after all, how could you let another human being go hungry when you had it within our powers to feed them?
The parish priest however, initially side-stepped the allegations, claiming instead that pork was an important important traditional ingredient in French cuisine, and so why shouldn't it be included if they were making traditional foods? He even went so far as to argue that he would be more than happy to serve a Jew or Muslim who was in line. It was only after a bit more prodding that he admitted that the "hungriest" and "most in need" were good French citizens, who of course could not be observant Jews or Muslims.
There was never much of a followup to this story. As far as I know, they may still be doing it. There is, after all, nothing illegal about putting pork in your food. At least, not in France.
Not that long ago a friend of mine who at the time was training to become an ordained priest here in Quebec told me a story of one of the problems she encountered at a downtown church where she was working a temporary assignment. The elders of the church had started charging for the food that was served after the weekend services. The price was nominal and not nearly enough to help with the actual costs of food preparation. After much digging, she finally discovered that it had been instituted in order to keep the homeless people of the neighbourhood from coming to the church for free food. Not being actually in charge of the church, or there for very long, she did her best to try to re-iterate the teachings of Jesus, which clearly were not being followed in that case. However, to my knowledge, the policy of charging for food may still be going on there today.
Contrast this to a collective out of Concordia University that was just getting underway when I was doing my undergraduate studies there almost a decade ago. The collective is The People's Potato, a Food Not Bombs group. As a general rule, the food produced and served by Food Not Bombs organisations, wherever they might be found, is suitable for vegans. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the main ones that was emphasised by the People's Potato was that such plant based foods are the most inclusive meals possible, generally being accepted by most religious and ethical positions, as well as being economically viable healthy options for those with limited financial means (part of the FNB program is to help educate people about healthy, inexpensive food preparation).
In other words, by not including any animal products in their food, they are able to be as inclusive as possible. They are still running strong today, serving over 2000 meals a week for free or by donation to the community in and around Concordia. I should also add that while some vegans volunteer there, the last time that I checked the majority of the people working there were not vegan.
As someone whose food choices are directly influenced by ethical considerations, I am particularly sensitive to situations like the above, both positive and negative.
Food is such a powerful thing. Breaking bread, the act of sitting down to a meal with someone, is a traditional and universal way for us to bond with and get to know others. Like all animal populations, the availability of large amounts of food have lead to our population expanding, and historically, when those food sources have shrunk, the empires built in the time of plenty have came crumbling down. The Spanish used the food choices of the Fijians as an excuse (along with religion) to massacre and enslave the people who lived there. Dictators through time, and even now in places like Lybia and North Korea restrict food to try and keep their populations weak and subserviant.
These days, I often use food offerings to guage the ethical and political waters of any group that I am interested in joining. Drop in playgroup offers fresh fruits for the kids? Yay! Church* up the streat does regular turkey meals? Boo. But even these initial judgments may not hold true past initial inspection. The drop in playgroup that I mentioned has more than once confused Sam when the volunteer who runs it suggested that people should eat eggs, or when she tried to explain to him what the (fake) bacon was (Sam didn't believe her and wrote it off as "dog food", along with the plastic chicken drumstick).
Obviously, the vegan community in Montreal needs to come together a bit more for the mutual support of vegan families. I hope that this is something that I can help address in the coming years, and we need to start doing some more serious outreach and bridge building with other socially conscious movements to try and further educate and bridge the gaps.
*As a non-theist, I am not particularly interested in joining a church. But I did run into a similar connondrum a few years ago when E was pregnant with Sam. I was seriously considering joining the Unitarian Universalist church in Montreal as their open religious philosophy was somewhat appealing to me at the time. One of the things that detracted me was that all of their community and social outreach projects that involved food, involved animal products. Social justice is not social justice when it is performed at the expense of others.